13 Innovative Programs That Invite Early Learners to Explore the Smithsonian

These free regularly scheduled, drop-in programs across the Smithsonian introduce the youngest learners and their caregivers to a wide-range of playful, engaging, age-appropriate topics, including shapes and storytelling, animals and nature, and music and movement

Young learners experiment with art materials to create their own projects inspired by collections in the Hirshhorn galleries and offering a completely new way to think about art. Courtesy of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

As Smithsonian educators, we believe that museums and zoos are the perfect spaces for young visitors to explore their interests, play with their peers, and learn through both facilitated and free-choice activities. Through the Smithsonian's program offerings, parents and caregivers can access high-quality content that fosters curiosity, creativity, and learning. We aim to support and empower adults in their role as educators and facilitators of their children's educational journeys.

Here is a curated selection of the regularly-scheduled museum and Zoo programs currently offered in the Washington, D.C. region: 

At the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Art Cart

  • When?: Every Saturday, 10am–1pm
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Drop-in, no registration required. 

The Art Cart offers young artists a hands-on maker experience during their museum visit. Each week’s Art Cart offers a fresh and fun theme featuring an artwork on view, an artmaking activity to do at the Museum, and kids projects to extend the fun at home! Kids and adults of all ages are welcome. Keep coming back! Each week, we will introduce a new topic, a completely new way to think about art, and a different location within the Museum. Trouble finding us? Someone at the welcome desk in the lobby can direct you. Stroller parking is available in the Lobby and on the Lower Level of the Museum. 

A group of children play with a parachute in a museum with airplanes overhead
The National Air and Space Museum hosts thematic family-friendly programming highlighting innovators and explorers to inspire your young learner. Courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum

At the National Air and Space Museum

Flights of Fancy Story Time

Flights of Fancy Story Time is a unique experience to engage with storytelling and the Museum's content. Each Flights of Fancy Story Time experience lasts approximately 30 minutes. Story time includes a read-aloud with the museum educator, a chat about an image or other museum resources related to the topic, and a demonstrated craft activity by the museum educator.

Soar Together at Air and Space 

Soar Together at Air and Space is a monthly family-focused program from the National Air and Space Museum. By engaging in these activities and experiences, families can imagine their own futures by sharing in the stories of innovators and explorers from diverse backgrounds who challenged conventions and changed the world. Each month we will focus on a different theme. 

Soar Together family days take place both in person and online. In addition to events at our Museum in D.C. or Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, Soar Together activities are available online for families to participate in, no matter where they live. Activities include scavenger hunts, videos, and hands-on demonstrations learners of all ages can do at home.

At the National Museum of American History

Wegmans Wonderplace

  • When?: Wednesday - Saturday, 10am–4pm; closed Monday-Tuesday
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Drop-in, no registration required. 

Wegmans Wonderplace is the first exhibition on the National Mall designed for children, ages  0 to 6. This 1,700-square-foot interactive space provides the youngest historians with age-appropriate activities and experiences. Find out more information about planning a visit or enjoy an online tour of the space. Wegmans Wonderplace is open Wednesday–Sunday from 10:00 am–4:00 pm; closed Monday–Tuesday. Hours are subject to change; please check our events calendar for the latest information. 


  • When?: Wednesday - Saturday, 11am–4pm; closed Monday-Tuesday
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Drop-in, no registration required. 

The Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation invites children ages 6 to 12 to create, collaborate, explore, test, experiment, and invent. Activities for children and families incorporate traditional science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with art, history, and creativity. Spark!Lab activities communicate that invention is a process, rather than a single “Aha!” moment; provide visitors with opportunities to explore the invention process and their own inventiveness; and demonstrate the central role that invention plays in American history—and today. SparkLab! is open Wednesday–Sunday from 11:00 am until 4:00 pm; Closed Monday–Tuesday.

Children gather for a storytime
Story time at the National Museum of the American Indian includes a read-aloud of a children's book by a Native author, paired with opportunities to learn more through museum collections. Matailong Du

At the National Museum of the American Indian


  • When?: Every Saturday, 11:15am - 11:45am
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Drop-in, no registration required. 

Families are invited to an interactive story time featuring a children’s book by a Native author. They will have the opportunity to engage with objects and photographs that can deepen their understanding of the community represented in the story. Recommended for visitors ages 3 years and up accompanied by an adult caregiver. Meet us in the imagiNATIONS Activity Center.

At the National Museum of Natural History

Play Date at NMNH

  • When?: Every Tuesday, 10:30am-12pm
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Drop-in, no registration required. 

"Play Date at NMNH" is a drop-in offering for the early learning audience (0-5 years old) and their caregivers and family members. Together, families will practice science skills such as observing, communicating, and asking questions through exploring topics in a variety of hands-on and collaborative experiences. Families will be able to explore together through stories, objects, art, and play related around a unifying topic or theme during each "Play Date." Activities provided during the program will be suited for learners of all ages, but are designed for families with young learners to learn and play together as they continue to develop and grow their science identity as a family. Be sure to the check the website for program themes and location within the museum.

The World & Me

  • When?: Select Saturdays, 10am – 12pm 
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Drop-in, no registration required. 

During monthly "The World & Me" programs, families discover the natural and cultural world and their place in it. Museum educators will lead a program that combines different hands-on experiences with our museum’s collections related to that month’s theme. Special guest scientists, artists, and authors also join to share their connections to the natural and cultural world, too! These programs are designed for families with children ages 3 to 8, but all are welcome to join in and learn more about natural history and develop their own connections, too! Check the Smithsonian’s event calendar to find when our next “The World & Me” is taking place.

A young child smiles as two adults look on
Hands-on artmaking, close-looking at portraits, and playful learning opportunities are core to programming at the National Portrait Gallery. Matailong Du

At the National Portrait Gallery 

Portrait Gallery Kids

  • When?: Every Monday, 11:30am–12:30pm
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Drop-in, no registration required. 

Children and families are invited to learn, play and create at the Portrait Gallery! Join educators every Monday as we explore topics like colors, emotions, STEM and history. Through close looking at art, hands-on activities, music and movement, Portrait Gallery Kids is a fun way to engage with art and each other. Meet us in the National Portrait Gallery Education Center, E151. 

Explore! at the National Portrait Gallery

  • When?: Daily, 11:30am–7pm
  • Cost: FREE

The National Portrait Gallery presents its first-ever space dedicated exclusively to children! Kids can delve into portraiture like never before. A variety of activities and experiences help answer questions about portraiture and identity. Choose from striking a pose for the camera, building faces with blocks, exploring shapes with felt and magnets, and so much more. Under the principle that children learn through play, Explore! was designed to give visitors the experience of learning in a fun and unique environment. The space is bilingual and features a variety of activities so that all may participate. Explore! is open daily from 11:30 am to 7:00 pm. Hours are subject to change. 

At the National Postal Museum

Virtual Story Time

  • When?: Select Mondays, 11am–11:45am
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Registration required. 

National Postal Museum educators read stories aloud and lead related activities in a Zoom meeting for children and their caregivers. This program explores a wide range of postal-related topics and museum objects. Sessions are interactive and last approximately 45 - 60 minutes. Designed for children ages 4-8 but all are welcome. Ideal for homeschool families!

Hello Museo

  • When?: Every other Tuesday at 10:30 – 11:30 am
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Drop-in, no registration required. 

Educators from the National Postal Museum lead a bilingual program (English/Spanish) every other Tuesday featuring music, stories, crafts, and gallery exploration. Designed for children ages 2-5 and their caregivers, but all are welcome. Meet us in the  Byrne Classroom, 3rd floor, Postal Museum.

Looking for the perfect free programming for the young animal lover in your life? The Zoo has a variety of ways to support your child's learning and growth. Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

At the Smithsonian's National Zoo

Little Critters: Nature Play

  • When?: Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 9:30am-1:30pm. 
  • Cost: FREE
  • Program information: Drop-in, no registration required.

Come play at the Zoo! Little zoogoers (ages 0-8) and their caregivers can drop in to explore animals and nature with free-choice activity stations, water play, and story times. Meet us in the Bird House Classroom.

Editor's Note: All program details are current as of publication. Please double-check the Smithsonian websites linked above for the most up-to-date information and program details. A full events calendar from across the Smithsonian is available at